What is the Stress Cycle and Why Does It Matter?

When our early ancestors came across a lion and believed that their life was in danger, how did their bodies respond?

Well, first blood started pumping to all of their organs, pupils dilated, heart pounded, and they became hyper-focused on the lion. All of this enabled them to either run for their life or climb a tree, or have super-human strength to fight the lion, or - in some cases - drop and ‘play dead’.

My next question: What happened to your ancestor after they outran, fought, or played dead and the lion retreated?

In a fairly short amount of time, the heart returned to normal, blood started being pumped to the arms and legs, and focus relaxed to enable them to carry on with their day. Interestingly, many of us assume that this change in body response was due to the lion not being a threat anymore. We like to believe that when the threat leaves, then we should be able to return naturally to a normal state and carry on with life, right? Nope, that's not how it works!

We don’t often differentiate between the stressor and the stress response. The lion was the stressor, which triggered the stress response, which is the fight/flight/freeze response, as well as the body symptoms that enabled those to happen.

Why does this matter?

It matters because we experience our own versions of ‘the lion’ every single day in the form of work stress, paying bills, marital issues, driving in traffic, taking care of children, and you fill in the blank. These all trigger the same response that told your distant ancestor that they were in danger and then, in order to keep them safe, directed body resources to where they needed to be for ultimate survival.

You are likely saying, “Yes, Kelsey, I know this feeling well and I hate it!”

So you know it! It’s the constant inner butterflies, shaky hands, inability to focus on anything else, heart pounding sensations that follow you home and invade your family time, ability to move through your emotions, sleep, focus, and gets you up in the morning already on the defence. It's what makes you edgy and feeling like you're on at a tipping point all of the time. We have all been there!

Want to know something crazy?! Learning this has been life changing to me and I hope that it makes a difference for you as well.

As Emily Nagosky and Amelia Nagosky write about in their book, Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, evidence shows that it was not the retreat of the lion that allowed your past ancestor to relax and carry on with life. Rather, it was the fact that they ran or climbed or exerted their body in another way. If they had not done that, they would go through their day constantly looking over their shoulder, expecting the lion to eat them at any moment, which would be unsustainable and detrimental to their health.

Do you find that to be crazy simple yet super profound?

They exerted themselves and that finished the stress cycle. Basically, it was because they did something that told their body that the stressor is gone because, otherwise, their body had no way to know this.

The stress response is a cycle that needs to be completed. Back then this completion of the cycle was naturally part of getting away from the threat. Unfortunately, our modern day stressors often don’t offer this same relief; instead, we experience stressor after stressor but there is no resolution to tell our bodies that we are safe. Instead, our bodies carry the stress around like an ever growing burden, which eventually affects all areas of health and wellbeing, and relationships (the statistics on stress-related illness are staggering, but that’s for another blog post).

“So, what is the modern day version of running for your life or ripping a lion to shreds?” you might be asking.

That is a great question and will be the topic of my next post, which you can find here.

Posted November 5, 2020

By Kelsey Hoff


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